Did the suspect in Saturday night’s failed Times Square bombing attempt come close to getting out of the country before he could be apprehended?
The Washington Post reported that according to “a source close to the United Arab Emirates,” Faisal Shahzad’s name was put on the U.S. government’s no-fly list around midday Monday. But despite that, the source added, Shahzad was able to buy a ticket to Dubai through Emirates Airlines, check in at JFK Airport, pass through security, and get on a plane. Shahzad was taken into custody last night by U.S. Customs and Border Enforcement officials, after being pulled off Emirates Airlines Flight 201, which had just left the gate, government officials have said. It appears that Shahzad bought his ticket while driving to the airport. A loaded handgun was found in the car he drove, which was parked in the airport parking lot.
“The question is, when did they become aware of his presence at the airport, and when was he put on the list?” the source told the Post. DHS has not yet confirmed when or whether Shahzad was placed on the no-fly list.
In a press conference moments ago, Attorney General Eric Holder suggested that law enforcement had the situation under control from the start. “I was here all yesterday and through much of last night and was aware of the tracking that was going on,” he said. “And I was never in any fear that we were in danger of losing him.”
CBS News adds that it was only thanks to a tip from Emirates Airlines that Shahzad, 30, was nabbed. Emirates notified the Department of Homeland Security that it had received a last-minute request for an all-cash purpose of a one-way ticket to Dubai — all of which are red flags. Before the arrest was made, law enforcement authorities had already notified authorities that the plane was not to take off, CBS added.
From Dubai, it appears that Shahzad intended to continue to Pakistan, from where he had recently returned. Pakistani authorities today arrested several men in connection with the alleged plot.
Had Shahzad made it out of the country — even only to be arrested and returned here after the plane landed in Dubai — it likely would have caused severe embarrassment and second-guessing in law enforcement and government circles.
It seems unlikely — though possible — that authorities deliberately allowed Shahzad to get on the plane, perhaps in order to gather further intelligence. Typically, law enforcement agencies prefer to arrest a suspect before he gets on a plane, for obvious safety reasons.
Umar Abdulmutallab, who is accused of plotting to detonate a bomb on a Christmas Day flight from Amsterdam to Detroit, was reportedly on a terrorist watch-list maintained by the National Counterterrorism Center, but not on a no-fly list.
Late Update: DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano confirmed today that Shahzad was put on the no-fly list yesterday, ABC News reports. She added that the government only became aware of his presence on the flight — presumably after being tipped off by the airline — after the manifest was completed.
ABC offers a potential reason why Shahzad was able to get on the plane: the government only checks people’s documents as they enter the U.S., not as they exit. A former Bush administration official told ABC that when counter-terrorism experts recently proposed that we also check people as they’re leaving — as many other countries do — “the airlines went ballistic,” arguing that such step would be expensive and cause delays. So the idea was dropped.